A florist caught between faith and discrimination
The decision by a Washington state florist not to provide flowers for a gay couple's wedding has set up an emotional court fight that may shape similar cases in the future.
Barronelle Stutzman loved doing custom floral work for Robert Ingersoll. He became one of her best customers, often encouraging her creativity. “Do your thing,” he would tell her when placing an order. And he loved what she did.
Over the years, Mr. Ingersoll spent nearly $4,500 on flowers and arrangements by the florist in Richland, Wash. But one day, he made a request that was different from his earlier orders. He asked Ms. Stutzman if she would design the flowers for his coming wedding ceremony. The request thrust her into a moral dilemma. Through a thriving nine-year business relationship, the fact that Ingersoll is gay had never been relevant.
But it was now.
As a devout Southern Baptist, Stutzman says her involvement in a same-sex wedding would violate her religious beliefs about the sanctity of marriage as a divinely blessed union exclusively between one man and one woman.
She did not object to selling flowers or floral arrangements from her shop to Ingersoll, as she’d done many times before. What she objected to was the possibility of a job requiring her personal involvement in the celebration of a same-sex marriage. She felt that would be a renunciation of her faith. So when Ingersoll arrived in her shop, excited to share his happy news, Stutzman was torn.
“Rob was asking me to choose between my affection for him and my commitment to Christ,” she would later write in a Seattle Times essay. “As deeply fond as I am of Rob, my relationship with Jesus is everything to me.”
That five-minute conversation with Ingersoll, she added, was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.”
Now, three years after the brief meeting in her flower shop, the 71-year-old florist is facing the prospect of financial ruin. Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington have filed discrimination lawsuits. In addition to targeting her business, Arlene’s Flowers Inc., they sued Stutzman personally, ensuring that any assets she might own beyond the flower shop could be taken from her to pay their legal fees if she lost.
“The point was to ruin her,” Stutzman’s lawyer, Kristen Waggoner of the conservative law group Alliance Defending Freedom, says. “It was to send a message to the [people of] the state and the nation that if you dare to say ‘I refuse to violate my religious faith,’ they will literally put everything you own at risk.”
Stutzman is not alone in being forced by the government to choose between remaining faithful to traditional religious views on marriage or facing punishment for violating state anti-
discrimination laws. Her flower shop is among a small number of wedding-related businesses nationwide run by religious conservatives who feel their faith prohibits any connection to the celebration of a same-sex wedding.
They include a wedding photographer in New Mexico, wedding cake designers in Colorado and Oregon, and the owners of a New York farm who rent out their scenic property as a wedding venue.
In each case, the business owner cited religious beliefs about marriage as justification for declining to provide services for same-sex weddings or commitment ceremonies. In each case, they were found guilty of violating state anti-discrimination laws for refusing to offer same-sex couples the same services they offer to heterosexual couples. In each case, the courts rejected legal arguments that the business owner should be exempt on grounds of religious beliefs from state laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The Stutzman case is being closely watched across the country because it may establish a framework for how to resolve clashes between advocates for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and religious conservatives in the future.
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Like those other cases, the lawsuits against Stutzman went to state court. She lost. The trial judge gave her a choice: Either agree to decorate same-sex weddings or stop doing weddings altogether.
She has agreed to refuse all weddings while her case is pending. Her appeal is now before the Washington state Supreme Court, with oral arguments expected this fall.
Ingersoll and his spouse, Curt Freed, declined an interview request for this story. Instead, their lawyers at the ACLU asked that the Monitor submit questions. Their responses were provided in writing. Many of the facts in the case are beyond dispute, but there is a substantial difference in how each side views the confrontation. From the perspective of Ingersoll and Mr. Freed, the incident is a matter of discrimination rather than a challenge to religious freedom.
Shortly after Washington State extended marriage to include same-sex couples in December 2012, Freed popped the question to his longtime partner. They were thrilled at the prospect of marriage. And they began to plan what they hoped would be an elegant and memorable 100-guest wedding to celebrate their love and commitment.
As part of the preparations, Ingersoll went to his favorite florist to ask her personally if she would handle the flowers. At that brief meeting, Stutzman reached across the counter and took hold of Ingersoll’s hand. He would later recall to Freed the words she used: “You know I love you dearly. I think you are a wonderful person, but my religion doesn’t allow me to do this.”
In response to Ingersoll’s request for a referral, she suggested three local florists from among a dozen flower shops in the area. They talked a bit more, then hugged, and Ingersoll left the shop.
Ingersoll wrote to the Monitor that he was “overwhelmed by the rejection from someone I had done business with for years.”
He added: “While trying to remain composed, I was of course flooded with emotions and disbelief of what just happened.”
He said he was aware that some religious conservatives were opposed to same-sex marriage, but he did not know that Stutzman was one of them. Freed says her refusal has had a lasting impact.
“We had not made other arrangements for our wedding, and this was really the first contact with a vendor we made,” he said. “We immediately became concerned that we were going to experience the same treatment from other vendors as well. The experience left us feeling isolated, singled out, and discriminated against.”
Soon after, Freed posted a comment on his Facebook page recounting the florist’s refusal. It went viral. According to a sworn deposition filed in the case, the Facebook post generated “overwhelming” support for the couple from across the United States. It also attracted the attention of the media, the state attorney general, and the ACLU.
At first, both Freed and Ingersoll thought Stutzman had a right to refuse their business based on her religious beliefs. Ingersoll even confided to a friend shortly after the exchange that he did not plan to file a lawsuit. “Not my thing,” he said in an email.
That view changed after conversations with friends and a personal phone call from Attorney General Ferguson. The ACLU also agreed to represent the couple in a private lawsuit against Stutzman and her company.
Although the matter was considered a high priority, Freed and Ingersoll were told (in mid-March 2013) there would be no action taken in their case for several weeks out of concern that media coverage of the dispute might set back other efforts to advance gay rights.
Those other efforts were taking place at the US Supreme Court. On March 26, 2013, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which barred same-sex couples from receiving federal marriage benefits. On March 27, the high court took up a challenge to Proposition 8 in California, which banned same-sex marriage in that state.
On March 28, the first formal notice was sent to Stutzman from the state attorney general’s office, informing her that she had violated the state’s anti-discrimination law. The letter urged her to sign an agreement pledging that she would not discriminate in the future. It warned that she might be liable for as much as $2,000 in fines per violation as well as attorney fees and costs. The message was clear: Settle now or the state will come after you.
The settlement included a disclaimer that nothing in the agreement would bar anyone else from suing her. What Stutzman didn’t know at that point was that the ACLU was also working on the case on behalf of Ingersoll and Freed. So even if she agreed to settle with the state, there was no guarantee that the ACLU wouldn’t pursue its own litigation.
Stutzman refused to sign the agreement. Within weeks, complaints were filed by both the attorney general’s office and the ACLU. In addition to naming Arlene’s Flowers, both suits also named Stutzman personally. This is litigation hardball. It is usually done in an effort to persuade a defendant to settle a lawsuit to avoid huge fees in the future.
Again, Stutzman refused to settle.
In their lawsuit, Freed and Ingersoll are not seeking damages for any emotional harm they suffered. They are simply asking to be reimbursed the $7.91 they spent driving to a new florist for their wedding flowers. In addition, the attorney general has said he will not seek reimbursement of his office’s fees and expenses from Stutzman. But the potential bill for legal fees and costs from the ACLU is another matter. Stutzman’s lawyer, Ms. Waggoner, says it could be well over $1 million.
Stutzman, a grandmother of 22 and great-grandmother of three, is at an age when most Americans are already retired and living on a fixed income. She and her attorney say she is not in a position to pay a large bill for ACLU fees and costs.
“I am guessing the amount of fees is going to be substantial, but I don’t have a specific number for you,” says Emily Chiang, legal director at ACLU of Washington. “Litigation is a messy, expensive thing, which is why we typically urge people to settle cases.”
The ACLU decision to sue Stutzman in her personal capacity could force her into bankruptcy, according to Stutzman’s lawyer. Ms. Chiang says the only intended message is: “You need to serve everyone equally.” She played down the threatening nature of the lawsuit. “It’s not like we mailed her a horse’s head,” the lawyer says.
“We have no interest in Ms. Stutzman’s assets,” she adds. “Look, the ACLU doesn’t litigate to make money. And we don’t litigate cases to drive people into bankruptcy. That is never our goal.”
Ingersoll and Freed say that any negative consequences for Stutzman from the litigation would be her own fault. “Barronelle ... was presented with a legal letter asking her to comply with the law. She chose not to, and chose to fight a battle in trial court, and now through appeals. Those decisions are hers and hers alone.”
At issue in the case are two conflicting legal provisions in state law. In 2006, lawmakers in the state capital, Olympia, passed a statute that bars discrimination based on sexual orientation. But the state constitution also includes a provision guaranteeing “absolute freedom of conscience in all matters of religious sentiment, belief and worship.”
That provision appears to be significantly broader and more protective than the US Constitution’s First Amendment and its promise of free exercise of religion. The question is what happens when the anti-discrimination law comes into direct conflict with a provision of the state’s constitution.
In ruling against Stutzman in 2015, the state judge drew a distinction between a citizen’s freedom to believe, which he said was absolute, and a citizen’s freedom to act in public on those beliefs, which he said can be regulated by the government. In effect, the judge said that belief is personal, but if individuals seek to express those beliefs in action, the anti-discrimination law would trump any claim for a religious exemption.
“The judge told me I could have my faith but I couldn’t practice it – keep it in the four walls of the church,” Stutzman says. “That’s like me telling Rob and Curt, ‘you can be gay, but once you leave your house you can no longer be gay.’ ”
She adds: “Christ is part of my life. If Rob and Curt’s homosexuality is a part of their life, they can’t drop that off. Neither can I drop off my faith in Christ.”
Denny Burk, a professor of biblical studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., notes how easy it would have been for Stutzman to have just told a little white lie to Ingersoll – that she’d be out of town or unavailable.
But that, too, would have been a violation of her faith. “Lying is a sin,” says Dr. Burk, who testified as a religion expert in the Stutzman case.
“You have to figure a way to have integrity and seeking peace with all men, but in a way that doesn’t involve a lie,” he adds.
Stutzman, he says, was trapped. There was no way for her to extricate herself from Ingersoll’s request without being honest about her religious convictions. Now she is being punished for it, he says.
“It is not safe to speak openly about these things, at least a lot of Christians feel that way,” he says.
To many conservative Christians, that makes America a country they no longer recognize. “We are in a time of fear and uncertainty. Our culture feels unstable,” says David Parker, pastor of the Central United Protestant Church in Richland, Wash., not far from Arlene’s Flowers.
Mr. Parker does not know Stutzman personally, but he has followed her case and lives in the community where the dispute has generated extensive debate. The Stutzman case, he says, is part of a larger trend involving erosion and denigration of constitutional protections of religious exercise and freedom of conscience. Parker attributes this, in part, to what he sees as a significant shift in political philosophy among liberals.
“A truly progressive liberal is going to welcome a plethora of pluralistic values, convictions, ideas, and perspectives” in society, he says. “But a person who is ideologically progressive and liberal is actually more focused on bending society in a very strict adherence to their worldview, which is highly antagonistic to orthodox Judeo-Christian tradition and history.”
“They see [religious conservatives], quite frankly, as the problem [behind the] culture’s ills and not a solution or foundation from which to build upon,” the pastor says.
Chiang says religion has nothing to do with the lawsuit against Arlene’s Flowers and Stutzman. “The ACLU is not an organization that is hostile to religion or to faith,” she says. “You have your freedom of conscience – that is your personal, private relationship with your faith – but when you decide to open a place of business, other rules apply.
“Those rules require that you serve everyone who comes through your door, assuming they have the money to pay for it.”
Chiang says it is irrelevant that Stutzman sold flowers for nine years to Ingersoll knowing he was gay. It is also not relevant that the Southern Baptist Church prohibits her personal involvement in a same-sex wedding, she says. The only relevant conduct, Chiang says, is that Stutzman refused to provide floral services to Ingersoll because he was marrying a man instead of a woman. That, she says, is a form of invidious discrimination.
Douglas NeJaime, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees that Stutzman’s prior work with Ingersoll does not absolve her from her subsequent refusal to handle the flowers at his wedding. “When someone discriminates against a same-sex couple, they are engaging in sexual-orientation discrimination,” he says. “It is not a response to say, ‘I’m willing to serve the gay person but not willing to serve the gay couple.’ ”
Since being sued, Stutzman’s reputation has been under nearly constant attack. Critics denounce her as a bigot. In contrast, those who know her say she is kind, friendly, and deeply religious.
“I’ve never seen a bigot who loves the people she is supposedly bigoted against and cherishes them and their friendship,” says Burk, the seminary professor.
“If Barronelle Stutzman is a bigot then that means that every wing of historic Christianity – Catholic, Protestant, as well as Orthodox Judaism, and Islam – is bigoted,” says Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “It means that virtually every civilization in the history of humanity until the Supreme Court ruled last summer has been bigoted in terms of its understanding of marriage and sexuality.”
Advocates for the LGBT community argue that traditional concepts of marriage must yield to marriage equality in Washington State, where the Legislature voted to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. Chiang says there is no need for courts to weigh Stutzman’s claim of religious conscience against her client’s rights.
“It is unworkable to say we can weigh things,” she says. “Having only partial public accommodations is like [being] half pregnant. You either are or you aren’t. Either [the business] is open to everyone or it is not.”
If the courts created the kind of religious exemption Stutzman is requesting, it would “blow a hole through the side of the law,” she says. Having only partial public accommodations would put the law on a slippery slope that could empower a grocery store clerk to refuse to sell milk to someone because of religious objections, Chiang says. “It sounds crazy but I think that’s where the logic takes you.”
To her, any religious exemption is unacceptable. “Think about the enormity of what happened, that in this day and age you could walk into a store and someone could turn you away and say, ‘I’m not serving the likes of you.’ ”
Parker, the Richland pastor, asks the same question about society, but with a different implied result. “We are moving into a society that is going to be much more [confrontational toward religious conservatives] rather than less,” he says. “It seems to me for the good of all people we need to meet each other in places of respectful deference. We have to figure out how we are going to live as neighbors in this world.”
Despite her previous court loss and the threat of financial ruin, Stutzman says she does not regret standing up in defense of her religious beliefs. She says she feels God has prepared her for the ordeal.
Twenty years ago, she endured a rough patch. Her father died and she was diagnosed with cancer. “That’s when my relationship with Christ changed,” she says. “Was I going to be a follower [of Christ’s example], or was I going to whine and complain?”
Surviving cancer made her stronger, she says, and helped her see more clearly what is important – and not important. “I think it prepared me for a time such as this,” she says, her voice breaking with emotion. “God is faithful in His promises.”
What will happen if you lose in court, she is asked.
She gets very quiet. “Then I guess we lose everything, and we pay the attorney fees, and we go on.”
Just like that? “Just like that,” she says. “God closes one door, He’ll open another.”
In a less litigious time, the dispute between Stutzman and Ingersoll might have been resolved with a tearful reunion and a mutual understanding that friends can have significantly different beliefs without resorting to conflict and litigation – and that those differences don’t have to result in victory for one, total defeat for the other.
“I would love to see Rob again. I would love to just hug him and say I’m sorry if there is anything he’s going through that is hurting him,” the florist says.
It is a gesture that is also part of Stutzman’s Christian faith. But under the current climate of confrontation, such a reunion – and the gentle understanding that could result – might never happen.
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Part 1: How the push for gay rights is reshaping religious liberty in America
Part 2: A florist caught between faith and financial ruin
Part 3: Behind legal fight over religious liberty, a question of conscience
Part 4: In Mississippi gay rights battle, both sides feel they are losing
Part 5: Is wedding photography art? A wrinkle in religious liberty debate.
Part 6: For those on front lines of religious liberty battle, a very human cost
Part 7: A push to help gay couples find wedding joy – without rejection